Rover Faculty Advisors recommend books and films every undergraduate student should read and watch

Walter Nicgorski, Professor Emeritus, PLS: Poetry of Robert Frost

I attended the recent lecture at Notre Dame by Bishop Robert Barron. His topic was “What Makes a University Catholic.” Near the end of the lecture, he observed that when we are faced with an important choice with divergent paths before us, he believes that God most often wants us to take the “harder way.”  This observation brought to mind Robert Frost’s wonderful reflection in “The Road Not Taken,” which I recalled on some critical junctures in my own life.  Frost’s opening lines and then his closing stanza follow:

                                   Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

                                    And sorry I could not travel both


                                    I shall be telling this with a sigh

                                   Somewhere ages and ages hence:

                                   Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

                                   I took the one less traveled by,

                              And that has made all the difference.

Other favorites of mine from the pen of Frost are “Mending Wall,” “The Oven Bird,” and “The Gift Outright.”  I treasure the memory of an afternoon I spent with Frost a couple years before he appeared at President Kennedy’s Inauguration and five years before his death in 1963.

Rick Garnett: The Lives of Others [2006] ( Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)

Because it is probably not in keeping with the spirit of the “Faculty Culture Collection” to remind students that The Godfather and The Godfather Part II are essential viewing, I will recommend The Lives of Others [2006], which was written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and is, in my view, among the very best films of this century. It’s set in still-Communist East Germany and is about an agent of the secret police (the Stasi) surveilling suspiciously a couple who are suspected of political disloyalty to the state but whom the agent comes to envy and admire. It depicts grippingly the soul-crushing, not-that-long-ago reality of Communist totalitarianism, of which pervasive and constant spying and supervision was an integral part, but also the small, but still heroic efforts human persons make to form real relationships and flourish and, ultimately, the redemptive power of forgiveness. (Another must-watch, by the way, is the same director’s more recent film,
“Never Look Away.”)  

Fr. Bill Miscamble, C.S.C.: Wonderful Fool (Shusaku Endo)

Rover readers are likely to be quite familiar with the work of the great Japanese Catholic novelist Shusaku Endo. His powerful historical fiction—especially The Samurai and Silence—is well known in the West. Martin Scorsese adapted the latter for a notable film released in 2016. Less well known is one of Endo’s earlier novels, Wonderful Fool, published in Japan in 1959 although not brought out in English translation until the 1970s.  I first read it during my early years at Moreau Seminary, just a few short decades ago! It left a mark on me. 

The novel is not as intense as Endo’s later historical works but the reading of it brings true insight to St. Paul’s counsel to the Corinthians (1 Cor 1:18) about the message of the cross being “foolishness” to those who rely upon worldly wisdom. Wonderful Fool tells the story of a young Frenchman named Gaston Bonaparte who travels to Japan to meet his former penpal, Takamori.  Much to the disappointment of Takamori and his rather smart sister, Tomoe, Gaston is hardly the attractive and exciting foreigner they were expecting.  You will have to read this very accessible and humorous story to follow Gaston’s various encounters in a rather materialist and somewhat decadent society that bears some parallels with our own.

I hope that you might read it so as to comprehend Tomoe’s eventual recognition that “he is a wonderful fool who will never allow the little light which he sheds along man’s way to go out.” I trust you will share a similar recognition.

Patrick J. Deneen: Empire Falls (Richard Russo)

One of my favorite “Catholic novels” is Empire Falls by Richard Russo (published in 2001). The novel is an intricate portrayal of struggling lives in the declining factory town of “Empire Falls,” probably set in Maine. Once a lovely and vibrant place where the upper and working classes lived in relative harmony of mutual symbiosis, the town is now in a state of decay, its factories closed, its “aristocracy” considering the sale to outside investors of whatever valuable property remains, and its scarred working class residents clinging to the hope of renewal out of a sense of loyalty to place and people. At the center of the drama is “St. Cat’s,” the local Catholic church on the verge of closing, but whose existence is being defended by the book’s main protagonist, Miles (son of Grace). A book that foreshadows current American political currents and divides, it is a moving, sensitive, and revealing exploration of a falling empire—one that hits very close to home, no matter where you happen to live.

Laura Hollis: Ciaphas Cain novels (Sandy Mitchell)

“In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.” If you recognize that slogan, you’ll know that the Ciaphas Cain series of novels are part of the Warhammer 40K universe. This is a truly rich science fantasy series with a ridiculous amount of novels, fascinating characters, thousands of years of backstory (“lore”), fan fiction and even figurines that devotees collect and paint. (Ever heard of the actor Henry Cavill? He is a collector, a HUGE Warhammer 40K fan and currently developing a series based upon another 40K character, Gregor Eisenhorn.) The novels are set in the Imperium—a massive amount of territory in the universe, with thousands of planets and tens of billions of people (not to mention other alien races), where the conflict is between the order imposed by the God-Emperor, His legions of Space Marines and the enforcement mechanisms of the Inquisition, versus the evil influence of Chaos (the “warp,” daemons, heretics, cults, space monsters, etc.) Lots of military content, so great for anyone who likes armies and battles against impossible odds. Cain is a Commissar in the Imperial Guard who manages to find himself right smack center in the middle of the most cataclysmic conflicts going on in the galaxy, despite his best efforts to avoid them! And although he purports to be a shallow, self-interested cad concerned only for the preservation of his own skin, he is actually a skilled, loyal and lovable rogue whose adventures are fun to follow as he saves planet after planet, with a love interest or two along the way! Think “James Bond” in space, and you’re close.

Photo Credit: The Reading Party, Jean-François de Troy 1735

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